Hic Sunt Dracones: Analogue Visions of the Trans-Siberian with Thibaud Gomes-Leal

2017-02-26 2

For most people, the Trans-Siberian is a myth. For some, it rhymes with promises, while for others it's a synonym of journey and expectations. Thibaud leads us to this wanderer's El Dorado -- from Moscow to Beijing. For a few weeks, he left his daily life to reach these "territories of imagination". En route for an analogue odyssey!

There are places like these, which only belong to the territories of imagination. We get close to them from time to time, we hold on to them, and leave them - to go back there later, when our mental state is more favorable. For me, the Trans-Siberian was one of those places. Unreal, mysterious, magical, distant and unreachable. But one day, just like a crazy bet for myself, I decided to go for it. To live this railway line from Moscow, crossing the whole Russia, and to run aground on the other side of the world, or at least from mine.

« Here be dragons »

This sentence used on the first maps of the world, in places still unknown to civilized man. It was supposed to mean that since we did not know what was there, there could be dragons. And I have never understood this feeling as well, when I went on this one-month trip from mid-September to mid-October 2016, which took me from Moscow to Beijing, wandering through Mongolia.

I went there with as little things as I could: my big bag on the back, books, stationery, my fear in the stomach, as much open-mindedness as possible, Lomography 400 and Ektar 100 films, and my Canonet QL17 with which we were still learning to know each other...
It sometimes made a mess for the portraits of the beautiful people I met, but it was a faithful companion accommodating with the difficult conditions -- all of this to deliver a beautiful picture. In the end, these few snapshots offer a small insight and overview on this incredible experience, which changed my way of seeing the world, and of shooting it.

Moscow

Massive and impressive, the capital requires some patience before unveiling its charms, but I was lucky enough to wander around the official buildings on museum's closing day. It helped me grasp the beauty of the great spaces I had in front of me, which were left empty.

On the other hand, the small enclaves of tranquillity that I could find in monasteries, churches and huge parks, teared down the noticeable ugliness of the buildings and gently invited to contemplation.

Towns

Apart from Moscow, I had trouble convincing myself that the other Russian cities I visited were beautiful. If they all have an Orthodox church and a Kremlin that is worth a visit, the rest is often a cluster of old and sad buildings.

However, at the end of your walks, you end up finding something to these bars of buildings, these faded parks and these jammed streets whose smell burns your throat all day long. A kind of icy poetry, a little depressing but which makes you smile anyway.

And if cities are nothing to be dreamt of, the rest of the country is -- especially in autumn. Somewhere where the waves of Siberian forests juggle between green, orange and red, and are only stopped by the Volga, the Ob, the Yenisei or another river with a sweet name.

Journey

I always loved trains. The idea, the rhythm, the spirit. And I guess if you decide to travel on the Trans-Siberian, you'd better love to be on rails.

This trip was a bit of the ultimate experience for the train lover that I am. I was finally going to find out if spending 3 days non-stop watching landscapes scrolling in front of me was really my thing. What’s fascinating with the Trans-Siberian is all the life revolving around. Between the prodvonistas (the train hostess), the mechanics, the small food stands on the platforms during stops, those who sell their dishes on the spot, or the travelers themselves … It’s simply fascinating.

It’s a small world of exchanges, sharing, routine and introspection. As you cross Siberia at the speed of a suburb train, and your mind gets lost in the horizon, it is a little bit yourself that you are probing.

Baikal

Lake Baikal was one of the mandatory stop of my trip, a sort of oasis after days spent on the train. I even pushed further, and isolated myself for three days on Olkhon Island, in the middle of the lake.

A place between Russia and Mongolia, where shamanism is making an appearance, where the hilarious dogs are following you to the trail - and where between the lake, the lichen-lined rocks, the fir forests and the hills of dry grass, colors are an invitation to a perpetual wonder.

Mongolia

This is where I left the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would have taken me to the Pacific rim of Russia and Vladivostok, to sink to South towards Mongolia and China, thanks to the Trans-Mongolian.

The opportunity was too great to visit these two countries, and 3 weeks of Russia had also given me the desire of other encounters, other images ... and perhaps of a more violent cultural shock. I must confess that the arrival in the polluted and grinding capital of Ulaanbaatar does not do justice to the country. A little bit like the Russian cities, the beauty is found in the aging pastel buildings, and the street life. But most people quickly get out of the din for the Gobi Desert on the South, or the mountains on the North.

I chose the last option: a snowy retreat in a valley, a few hours away from "UB". There, the golden pines lose their needles on the fresh snow, the dogs are still as crazy, and the monasteries are nested at the bottom of silent valleys.

China

After a week spent in Mongolia, the final stretch: the last hours on the train, finally reaching Beijing, the final destination of my trip.

After 8,000 kilometres of rail, 126 hours of journey and 3 countries, I admit that the sedentary guy deep inside me was quite happy to arrive at the end of my railway part. For a city of more than 20 million people, I expected noise, a lot of people and tension ... I was surprised to find something totally different. Obviously, the crowd and urban excitement are truly part of the city, but the profusion of temples, gardens, and small streets is enough to forget that you are in one of the most thriving capitals of the world.

Moreover, if you are a bit curious, you can easily see the visual treasures of the city, the captivating life of the hutongs, the beauty of tiled roofs, and the shrilling colors of canteens on the sidewalk. Beijing was finally a bit like this trip: monumental, plural, generous and exciting until in the end. If my photographs made you want to go and see that by yourself, then their mission was successful.


After studying cinema, Thibaut learnt the art of editing by himself. He introduced two short documentary movies, some mash-ups and a webserie called HUB, available on his Vimeo. Apart from these activities, some crazy people allowed him to write for the amazing website, the Dailymars, for Allociné, the main French website dedicated to cinema and for the show « Did you ever see? ». He also tries to show beautiful things on his Instagram, and to share the good things that are happening in the big screen with his Twitter. You can also discover and follow his LomoHome!

written by mpflawer on 2017-02-26 #culture #places #travel

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2 Comments

  1. vindemiatrix
    vindemiatrix ·

    Wished I could go on this journey one day...

  2. srcardoso
    srcardoso ·

    This is one of my "must-do-before-I-die" travels...

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